Blogs  |  6.27.2016

5th Graders Travel to the Bottom of the Ocean as Test Aquanauts

For the past 30 years, Challenger Center has created unique, experiential learning opportunities for students to take part in at Challenger Learning Centers around the globe. With a mission to engage as many students as possible, our Investing in Innovation grant from the Department of Education is allowing us to transform our Center-based experience into a classroom-based STEM program that will help expand our footprint and deepen our impact.

The comprehensive program will be a week-long experience that starts with an introduction of the overall mission objectives (in this case, ocean and environmental sciences), moves on to the experiential, hands-on learning portion, and ends with work to raise awareness for the issues discussed over the course of the experience.

Now more than half way through the grant, it was time to put our work into the hands of some students. We traveled to Hanover County, Virginia for three days of testing with a partner school district. These days were focused on the middle portion of the program, the experiential, hands-on learning aspects. We wanted to observe how the students engage with our user interface, work with the interactive, hands-on tools and labs, and problem solve as both individuals and members of a team.

The students, of varying academic levels, were designated “Test Aquanauts” and knew this was an opportunity to try out a brand new program. After a badge ceremony, team assignments, and a pre-mission briefing, activities that typically take place during day one or two of the program, the class divided into five teams to tackle their mission. The group had learned they would use scientific investigation and analysis to study several key STEM-related themes in the mission, including identifying a number of critical issues impacting our oceans and understanding why the Hawaiian monk seal, a symbol of the greater issues plaguing our oceans, is at risk. Using our EngiLearn™ platform, the students were “transported” to the bottom of the ocean to a virtual underwater research station and submarine and immediately immersed themselves in different areas of study including marine biology, oceanography, meteorology, and geology.

One of the key components of our Center-based mission is interaction with the Mission Flight Director. Our Flight Directors add essential direction and supervision, and while we knew an in-person Flight Director wouldn’t be possible in a classroom setting, we still made it a priority to transform that role. Our result is a series of instructional videos, starring Commander Carpenter, played throughout the entirety of the program. It was immediately clear by the student’s reaction to Commander Carpenter that this leadership position was serving its critical role and providing necessary guidance to keep the mission on track.

Students were introduced to new science content, working through the software platform to complete digital tasks, before they were interrupted by the first event of the program. The events are the classroom version of emergencies that take place during our space-themed missions at Challenger Learning Centers. This particular incident, a seaquake, had caused damage to the research station, and each group would have to help repair that damage. You could see the level of urgency and energy rise in the room when the students started to work on their individual tasks. They were asked to assess power needs compared to time and ensure they had enough airflow in the research facility. This event ended up being a major highlight of our testing experience.

Once the research station was repaired, student’s transitioned back to the ocean mission, specifically finding out what was happening to the Hawaiian Monk Seal. Students read and answered questions about coastal erosion and ocean acidity before having the chance to work with a hands-on activity. Using large maps, we asked the kids to take a look at a pile of ocean debris and use location identifiable features to track each piece from its starting point to the final place it was found. The true “ah-ha” moment happened when the group realized that no matter the starting point of the debris, ocean currents create a few major trash depositories and one of those depositories severely impacts the North West Hawaiian islands, home of the monk seal. It was that moment when the kids realized that our actions have direct consequences.

The final activity we tested was directly related to the seaquake the students had experienced earlier. Commander Carpenter notified the students to substantial engineering flaws that put the entire research station at risk. With the realization that a complete redesign was needed, the students had to make projections and recommendations of how to revise the design. They anticipated potential future issues, analyzed oxygen needs, reviewed power priorities, and identified solutions to create a redesigned model of the research station. Through the lens of prevention and emergency readiness, the students learned how to be strategic in their planning. Our three days with the students came to a close when each group had the chance to present their final designs to the entire class.

We could not have been more pleased with our experience in Hanover County, Virginia. The students were phenomenal, they provided invaluable feedback, feedback that cannot be anticipated or gathered in a lab. The opportunity to see EngiLearn in action gives us the chance to make changes and enhancements, but also gives us real-world confirmation that the program is working as planned.

So what’s next? The team is back in the lab making adjustments and modifications to strengthen the mission based on our observations and the feedback the students provided. We continue to develop and refine each component of the program before the first formal pilot phase takes place later this year.

A huge thanks to Hanover County Public Schools, Washington-Henry Elementary School, their principal Dr. Dana Jackson, mission development and host teacher Jennifer Post and the amazing 5th graders for making this experience so special (be sure to check out some of the moments we captured during testing). We look forward to heading back to Virginia next school year for the official pilot of EngiLearn.

– Robert Piercey, Vice President of Education